JOHANNESBURG - The brightest item in a shingles tormented week was an over-the-moon phone call from Dutch daughter Soul, who had just returned from five days in Qatar, the richest country on earth.
She took leave from husband and kids in the Hague to visit close South African friends transferred to Doha by Shell. The glittering palace still under construction in the desert exceeded her wildest imagining.
Petro-dollars are swamping the place and the boss, Hamad Ben Khalifa Al Thani, seems unsure what to do with it all.
The friends live the life of Riley – they earn plenty of dollars tax free, which they are accumulating towards nice houses back in the RSA at the end of their four-year contracts. They have lovely air conditioned bungalows with a beach view. Most days it’s too hot to step on to the beach but after dark it becomes bearable. As expats they are allowed to drink, which is just as well as they all enjoy what they call “Vitamin R” (rose wine).
The bottle store is a veritable Fort Knox, admission by foreign passport. After you have bought your liquor, you are required by law to go straight home, presumably so you can’t sell to thirsty Qataris, who would no doubt willingly die for a cold Castle. No fetching the kids from the international school first!
Like Dubai, Qatar wants to be a desert paradise, a magnet for the global rich. Unlike Dubai, it has 15bn proven barrels of oil and even more gas. It therefore has so many petrodollars that, while cash-strapped Dubai is at a standstill, the construction boom in Qatar goes on.
Among creatively shaped skyscrapers in Doha are swanky hotels, which mostly stand empty. So, to help fill them they are building a world-class golf course, which is watered by desalinated fresh water.
Soul walked into a shopping centre paved in marble, beautiful shops, well stocked with every goody you could want.
“Dad, it’s spooky. At 2pm it’s like Sandton City at 6am. The staff are there but there are no customers.”
There is no shortage of motorised exotica in the streets. Apparently Qataris are soccer mad, so they pay recent retirees from the top level of the game millions of dollars to live and play there. They play in empty stadiums watched virtually entirely on TV. Many drive Lamborghinis. This could be the retirement home of David Beckham (if Posh can stand the heat).
As Shell (and Sasol) will attest, the gas and oil sector is thriving and petro-dollars keep flowing. In Qatar unemployment is not a problem. Most people are unemployed – voluntarily. No problem – they are paid quite handsomely by the State to stay home and watch TV!
The actual work is done by Indians, Filipinos, Nepalis and Pakistanis. Soul’s friends say domestics are paid about the same as an au pair in Europe (about €500 – say R5 000 pm tax free).
As to recreation, there is the beach – hell, the whole of Qatar is a beach. Nice clear water and all that even if you can’t walk across the burning sand. The other amusement is dune driving. You can hire a professional driver to fly up and down the sand dunes in a Prado. Only a few people have died in this adrenalin rush.
I had to look it up in Wikipedia. It’s a tiny patch of desert neighbouring Saudi Arabia on the Arabian Peninsula, a legacy of the British Empire. It is a close ally of the West, was a launching pad in the Iraq wars and hosts the US Central Command’s Forward HQ.
It has the highest GDP per capita in the world and enjoyed economic growth of 19.4% in 2010. Given that the boss seized power from his father, it is a surprisingly liberal place. Women are allowed to drive and to vote. There are bars and nightclubs in international hotels. Of the population of 1.5m only 20% or 300 000 are Qatari and 94% of labour is carried out by foreigners.
It is big on education and eight US universities have campuses in Doha. The Qatar Science and Technology Park is being developed, as is the Qatar Financial Services Centre. The number of visitors has grown from 2m in 1998 to 15m in 2010, which has necessitated a very flashy new airport.
There is a dark side. Thanks to virtually free energy, universal air conditioning and extensive water desalination, Qatar emits more carbon per capita than any other country.
WikiLeaks recently published a letter from the deputy prime minister to Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil suggesting they donate $1.7bn towards the cost of building a medical centre.
Poor people are attracted to work there but, according to Wikipedia, have in some cases been “trafficked into involuntary servitude as domestic workers and labourers”.
Judging by the way it fritters away billions on trivia, Qatar has not yet worked out its post-oil future in the way that Norway. Qatar has more oil and more time than Norway.
Just imagine what we could do with this kind of money in SA - the roads and railways, the power stations, the houses and hospitals! Imagine the job generation and poverty alleviation!
Perhaps they would like to buy us? Can we declare a unilateral declaration of dependence?